It’s kind of odd, when you think about it.
Why do I care so much about the young men running around the court or field, chasing after a spherical object of one kind or another, attempting to score as many goalpointbaskets as possible?
The fact remains that I do care, and probably always will, though recent events have shown me that the nature of that caring may change. And I think I’m okay with that.
Sports were a mostly solitary activity for me as a child. (Despite growing up in a family of five children, I seemed to be on my own most of the time, whether voluntarily, or to avoid being given chores, or because I was just that absorbed by my own imagination.) I know my father, an excellent natural athlete, had much to do with my interest in football and basketball, but it seemed that even from an early age I had a personal and abiding passion for both playing and watching games of all kinds.
When I arrived home from school I would immediately retrieve whichever filthy basketball had the most air remaining inside it from the blue storage containers stowed beneath my father’s workbench in the garage, and I would shoot, sometimes for hours on end. I would practice moves against invisible opponents, fictional and professional alike. (I took a particular, strange enjoyment in defeating video game characters in these self-conceived battles. Somehow beating Imaginary Link was more satisfying than beating Imaginary John Stockton, and I’m not sure why.)
I would stand at the chip in the cement driveway that just happened to be almost the precise distance for free-throw shooting, and fire off fifty straight, running to retrieve misses and delighting when the perfect spin on the ball and the snap of the net returned the ball to me without forcing me to move my feet. I would shoot and dribble and spin and jump until the nubs on the ball were worn smooth from a million caroms and a billion bounces.
Sports are a horrible thing to dream about, because it becomes readily apparent at a very early age that those dreams will never be reality. Even at 28, it’s possible to fantasize about being a best-selling novelist, or a famous musician, or any number of things that can bring fame and glory. But I knew before I hit puberty that I would never be a professional athlete. (And if my 12-year-old self could have seen my 28-year-old self back then, he’d probably be simultaneously amused and horrified that he’d ever dreamed about it in the first place.) That’s a harsh sort of disillusionment to face.
Maybe that’s why I dedicated myself instead to being a fan, and later a journalist. I have often commented to peers that, were I to never use my sports knowledge to somehow provide for myself financially, there is no way I could justify the amount of time and resources I have spent as a spectator.
But that’s not really true. I don’t regret a single dime I’ve ever spent on a ticket to a sporting event, regardless of the outcome. And while now I do indeed employ my comically vast knowledge of sports in my daily work, that’s still not the reason I remain a committed fan.
What that reason is, I don’t know that I’ll ever be fully able to identify.
I can make a couple of guesses. Solitary childhood aside, sports is still the best way I can connect with my father, and when we combine his first-hand knowledge of how games are played with my memory for facts and facility for strategic identification, we really make an unbeatable commentary team. (If I had a nickel for each time one of us made an astute observation five seconds before the announcers on television made the exact same comment, I would be a very rich man.) To deny his influence on my continued fandom would be silly. But nowadays, when I see him at most once a week, it’s hardly the main cause.
Beyond that, I think it is easy for sports to become a source of catharsis for fans — a place where yelling at the top of your lungs, expressing joy and outrage and despair and hope and satisfaction all at once, is not only allowed but encouraged, is priceless in an existence too often bogged down by ennui and routine and drudgery.
Being a sports fan goes even further, though, and this is one of the hardest things to explain about the value of being one.
In Nick Hornby’s excellent Fever Pitch, the memoir about his obsession with English soccer team Arsenal (which was later adapted for American audiences by the Farrelly brothers and became the execrable Red Sox-centric Jimmy Fallon/Drew Barrymore chick flick), he explains that being a fan gives one a sense of belonging, an instant kinship with thousands of complete strangers, not to mention the athletes themselves.
To be a fan, Hornby explains, is not to share in some sort of vicarious victory, but to actually participate in the battle itself — not by running up and down a soccer pitch, but by making a conscious decision to support, to follow, to read, to watch, to learn, and to love. It takes a unique kind of commitment, one that bears as its fruit a joy that is qualitatively different from that of the athletes who determine it, yet no less valid or real or joyous.
Perhaps it is even more so. Who is happier, the athlete who gives of himself physically over the course of a season to help deliver a championship to a team long bereft of one, or the fan, who has sat through countless unsuccessful seasons, braving inclement weather and inclement fortune, only to be rewarded with that moment of victory? To whom does the title of “champion” mean more?
I’m romanticizing the notion here, but I think that’s kind of my point. Sports can and should be romanticized, even in the age of multi-million-dollar contracts and shoe sponsorships and Gatorade and bling and body ink. At least, I’ll never feel guilty for being romantic about them.